The history of home sewing
Our female ancestors learned to sew from an early age, for, as Jayne Shrimpton explains, until relatively recently sewing was an essential skill and often an occupation
Historically, sewing was considered to be an essential feminine accomplishment. Before the machine age, girls from all social backgrounds learned to sew by hand from the age of five or six, typically being taught at home alongside other household tasks. Many would eventually be able to create entire garments and most would at least stitch their own white linen caps, aprons and shifts, baby clothes and men’s shirts and cravats, for sewing and embellishing basic dress articles, including the family linen, was considered a woman’s duty. For privileged ladies, needlecrafts remained largely a genteel pastime: they could always call on servants for assistance or might use professional garment-makers. However it was common for ordinary women to make, alter and repair clothes for themselves and their families, a necessary economy in poorer households in the days before off-the-peg clothing became widely available in the shops: additionally, for many working women sewing often provided an income.
Some girls were destined to receive formal dressmaking training, being apprenticed at about 12 years old, for a number of years: apprenticeship terms varied and arrangements might be informal if training with a close associate. Instruction with a professional garment-maker was otherwise an expensive option: many young apprentices worked long hours for low or no pay, but attaining high standards could secure a respectable position and
a skilled dressmaker might even commence her own business.
From the early-1800s schools included needlework in the curriculum, and in Victorian England many dame schools, village schools, Sunday schools and orphanages taught sewing. As the education system expanded, domestic subjects became compulsory for girls, to equip them for their future roles as wives and mothers and for jobs in domestic service, tailoring, dressmaking or millinery – the only respectable female occupations in most areas of the country. Surviving school cloth ‘account’ or sampler books displayed their work, which included knitting, crochet, fine needlework, plain stitching and the gussets and gores that were used in garment making.
Teachers were issued with practical instruction books like Needlework and
Cutting Out (1884) by Kate Stanley, head governess and teacher of needlework at Whitelands College, Chelsea. As she explained: “Within the last few years, needlework has taken, and wisely taken, a much more prominent position than it formerly did in the education code.” In addition to the techniques exemplified in ‘account’ books, girls learned to hem, sew and fell seams, sew on buttons, attach tape strings, to gather and tuck fabric, and patch, darn and strengthen thinning material. Basics mastered, they then progressed to cuttingout and making-up, learning to fashion baby’s first shirt; a nightgown; a long white petticoat; a robe and pinafore for baby; a woman’s chemise ( blouse) and gored flannel petticoat.
Many Victorian societies and charitable organisations also encouraged sewing. Certain schemes were designed to help gentlewomen in reduced circumstances gain modest employment, while some ladies founded or revived home needlework industries for their estate tenants. In Ireland, famine and unemployment prompted various enterprises, including the formation of local needlework schools. Ostensibly aimed at teaching occupational skills to the disadvantaged, sewing instruction also ensured that working-class females remained in low-paid, subservient work considered appropriate to their social station.
Our female forebears left school or home able to sew neatly and make basic clothes, useful accomplishments before the readymade clothing industry advanced. Fortunate girls might attain positions in tailoring or court dressmaking establishments, earning a reasonable, if sometimes unpredictable, income, but the average working-class wife and mother juggling work with domestic responsibilities undertook sewing at home as a seamstress or piece-worker making or finishing suits, blouses, shirts, dresses and nightwear. Seamstresses operated everywhere, working for diverse employers, but the highest concentration of female homeworkers occurred in geographical areas where men’s wages were low or where men’s jobs were mainly casual or seasonal; also where there was no alternative employment for women.
During the 19th century, London, Essex and Bristol developed as major centres for homeworking in the light clothing industry. As consumer demand expanded, certain goods became associated with particular locations: Leeds was best-known for woollen outer clothing; raincoat manufacture was strongest in and around Manchester; miscellaneous dress trades operated in the West Midlands, South Wales, Bristol and Nottingham areas; while Norwich, Colchester and other eastern districts focused on tropical wear. Wars also affected the kinds of sewing piece-work available: for example, thousands of female homeworkers served Colchester tailoring factories responsible for producing military uniforms during the First World War.
Garment manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers relied on the home-based labour force, yet sewing was inextricably linked to unpaid domestic work and few employers paid a fair wage for the long hours of labour: for instance, the Select Committee on Sweating, 1888, discovered that an outworker making a coat for a wholesale firm earned just 7d or 8d; later, during the First World War a Colchester pieceworker received 2s 6d for making one dozen army
Garment manufacturers relied on the home-based labour force
shirts. Homeworkers also had to provide their own needles and thread, heating and lighting and arrange to return the finished goods: if completed work was pronounced sub-standard or delivered late, they incurred a fine. Many struggled financially and often worked in unsanitary conditions, for home working environments were not covered by the successive Factory Acts. Whether supporting a family alone, or trying to supplement the household income, tragically many of our dressmaking forebears were trapped by poverty and lack of opportunity within the system of sweated labour.
Home sewing depended on available resources and technology. Well-fitting garments required a reliable template to follow when cutting out, and prior to the Industrial Revolution Georgian ladies making or commissioning new clothes often copied an existing garment. By the mid-1800s many instruction manuals and fashion-led periodicals were in circulation, some, like Beetons’ The Englishwoman’s Domestic
Magazine, including rudimentary paper garment patterns. During the later 19th century full-sized tissue paper patterns were mass-produced by companies like Butterick and McCall, and by 1900 both the family sewer and professional dressmaker were becoming better equipped.
Simultaneously, mechanical sewing was introduced. Inventors had been experimenting for a century when Elias Howe patented the first practical sewing machine in 1846. Isaac Singer followed in 1851 with a more efficient machine and, following further improvements, by 1856 a lightweight sewing machine was designed for home use. Clothing factories eventually adopted machinery on an industrial scale, but the transition was slow. It still suited employers to use outworkers wherever there was a supply of cheap labour and since machines theoretically speeded up the rate of piece-work, for certain tasks at least, mechanisation did not replace homeworkers, but perpetuated the piece-work system.
Workers were often expected to provide their own machines but initially sewing machines were very expensive and so sometimes friends, relatives and neighbours clubbed together, sharing a hand-crank or treadle machine. Prices reduced during the later 1800s and it became possible to rent or buy a machine. The first electric sewing machines were developed in the 1920s and with paper patterns becoming more user-friendly, coupled with easy-to-make clothing styles, home dressmaking remained popular between the wars, enabling women to enhance the quality of their wardrobes.
‘Make-Do and Mend’
War erupted in September 1939, and almost immediately material goods began to grow scarce. During the Second World War, some dress items disappeared completely and most new clothing purchases were rationed from June 1941. The government wanted to reduce consumer demand so that all resources could be directed towards the war effort and in 1942 the Board of Trade launched a ‘Make-Do and Mend’ campaign to encourage civilians to “utilise every old garment before considering anything
new”. As Hugh Dalton, the board’s president, explained: “When you are tired of your old clothes, remember that by making them do you are contributing some part of an aeroplane, a gun or a tank.” A cartoon character, Mrs Sew and Sew, personified the scheme on posters and the press circulated practical tips. ‘How-to’ publications advised on the care of clothing, newspaper features like the ‘Sew and Save’ articles in the Daily Mail explaining every step of home dressmaking and planning a smart wartime wardrobe.
The concept of ‘make do and mend’ appealed to the British public’s keen sense of patriotism. Millions of ordinary women could already sew and were accustomed to making clothes last, but privileged ladies struggling without domestic help were less familiar with basic tasks. The Women’s Voluntary Service and Women’s Institute ran evening classes, while some women taught themselves the fundamentals of home dressmaking. However, garment-making was thwarted by fabric shortages and women had to improvise. Coats were fashioned from blankets and dresses created from blackout material or old curtains; some women altered an absent husband’s dressing gowns and overcoats to make themselves coats and jackets. Parachute silk was used to make underwear and wedding dresses and worn adults’ clothes were re-made into children’s garments: resourceful dressmakers used any available scraps to create wearable, if sometimes unusual, garments including silk map-patterned blouses and dressinggowns. Patriotic materials were also popular, such as the red, white and blue ‘Victory’ print. Indeed, managing the wardrobe and domestic sewing helped maintain morale and a sense of normality during the war – ‘weapons’ representing ingenuity, determination and resilience.
Afterwards advancing mass-production and development of easy-care synthetic fabrics fuelled the ready-made clothing market, although home dressmaking remained a feature of domestic life in many homes until the late-1970s/1980s. A general decline in dressmaking in the late-20th century reflected the trend for more women to go out to work with less time for traditional domestic tasks. Additionally, the success of retail chains offering stylish, quality, affordable clothes reduced the need for long hours at the machine. Needlework in schools has also been reduced in recent decades; yet a love of garment-making and needlework skills have been painstakingly passed on in some families, a precious legacy linking the past with the present.
Jayne Shrimpton is a professional dress and textile historian, author and experienced portrait specialist
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Xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx Elderly women in London’s East End making stockings and mittens to sell
A dressmaking class at Hammersmith Trade School for girls c1911
A fashion plate to help dressmakers and their customers choose designs
Mrs Sew-and-Sew inspired women to make their clothing last during WW2